Puerto Ricans voted for statehood in a low-turnout, nonbinding referendum in June
Congress ultimately has the final say on whether Puerto Rico becomes a state
The devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria has brought the small island off the coast of Florida – home to 3.4 million American citizens – into the spotlight.
Some critics of the federal government’s response have raised concerns that help to the island is lagging because it is a US territory and not a state. (Residents on the island are US citizens.)
Puerto Ricans voted for statehood in a low-turnout, nonbinding referendum in June, but the island has repeatedly voted with mixed results on statehood in the past. Congress ultimately has the final say on whether Puerto Rico becomes a state.
As The New York Times reported, the number of Puerto Ricans moving to Florida over the last few weeks – and the number that could move in the coming months – could tip the purple state in future elections.
But how could Puerto Rico rock the national political stage if it’s given full-fledged status as the 51st state in the union? Here’s a look at how it would affect Congress and, perhaps, the White House.
The US Senate in the balance
The Constitution provides that each state gets two seats in the US Senate regardless of population, which means Puerto Rico would take the 101st and 102nd seats in the chamber.
It’s likely, though not certain, that the Democratic Party would be favored to win those seats. Puerto Ricans who live in Florida are a strong Democratic group, and more than twice as many Puerto Ricans voted in the Democratic presidential caucuses in 2016 as the Republican presidential primary. Still, the Puerto Rican resident commissioner, the territory’s non-voting member of the House, caucuses with Republicans.
Two Democratic seats from Puerto Rico would (slightly) tip the balance of the Senate. Republicans currently hold 52 seats; two more Democratic seats would result in a 52-50 balance, allowing the GOP only one vote to spare, having to rely on a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, instead of their current two-vote margin, when Democrats remain united against their legislative priorities.
Fork in the road for the US House
A big complicated formula currently explains how many House seats each state should get, according to the Census Bureau.
The process starts by automatically giving each state one seat.
Then the method gives each potential seat for each state a unique “priority value” based on a formula and the state’s population. The state with the highest priority value (California) gets the 51st seat. Then the next highest remaining (Texas) gets the 52nd. The next highest (California again) gets the 53rd. New York gets the 54th. Florida gets the 55th. And so on all the way to the 435th seat.
The bottom line is this: With 3.4 million people currently living in Puerto Rico, the island would be entitled to five seats in the US House, according to this formula. (They’d get the 128th, 209th, 294th and 378th seats, in addition to their automatic seat, in case you were wondering.) The five unlucky states that would lose one seat each? Minnesota, California, Texas, Washington and Florida.
The size of the US House of Representatives has been capped at 435 voting members by law for over a century. So Congress could add seats to the House for Puerto Rico. (When Alaska and Hawaii became states, the number of voting representatives was briefly increased to 437 before returning back to 435 with the next census.) And then (maybe) reduce the number with the next census.
Puerto Rico currently has one, non-voting resident commissioner.
Electoral College watch
Say goodbye to 270. The number of each state’s electoral votes is equal to their number of senators plus their number of representatives.
With another two seats in the US Senate for Puerto Rico, the total number of electoral votes in the Electoral College would climb to 540, bumping the magic number for victory in the Electoral College up to 271. (That number could change if Congress would add more seats to the House.)
Puerto Rico would likely wind up with seven electoral votes. Minnesota, California, Texas, Washington and Florida – three of which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 – would each lose one, giving Democrats a net gain of four Electoral College votes based on 2016 election results, if Democrats in fact won Puerto Rico.
A broad 71% of non-Cuban Latino voters in Florida voted for Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls from the 2016 presidential election.